Sometimes, I catch my wife watching out of the corner of her eye while I cram my feet into climbing shoes. The process entails a good deal of whining and swearing, which will continue throughout the subsequent training session. She usually keeps quiet about what she sees, but sometimes she can’t help but ask, “What is it that you like so much about climbing?”
I tell her that I like it because it’s war, except that, as opposed to war, if everything goes right, nobody dies. My answer is a bit hyperbolic. For one thing, I have never even been near a war, much less participated in one. What I mean is: the attractive thing about climbing is the same as what those who have fought wars say is the attractive thing about war.
Though it is difficult to put a finger on the source of our attraction, we humans are undoubtedly enamored of war. Our literature enshrines it. It has a permanent place in our culture, in the form of holidays and memorials, but also in practices like the martial arts. The studios can always sell us another war movie.
It isn’t just a fascination born of fear either. We associate warfare with all kinds of positive moral qualities, like courage, loyalty, and determination. Even the Prussian general, Carl von Clausewitz, implicated valor as a reason for the individual to become voluntarily involved in warfare. This from the man who said that war has its own grammar, but not its own logic.
Von Clausewitz clarified that position on the nature of war in what is now a famous aphorism: war is politics by other means. Practicalities drive us to war. That can’t be the whole story though. If it were, all armies would be conscripted, and no war would last as long as every war has lasted. We fight well beyond pragmatic exhaustion.
That’s because Von Clausewitz was wrong. War does have its own logic. If we listen to war’s participants, we hear about the struggle to survive their circumstances, and to put an end to the struggle itself by overcoming their opponents. We hear about the moral obligation to protect one’s comrades. The politicians may have pursued their policies into war, but once the war gets going, the fighters fight for other reasons entirely.
If we take logic to mean a description of consistencies between meanings, then we have to conclude that war does have a logic of its own. It is a logic which supersedes all the extrinsic reasons for going to war. Maybe that’s why war persists. Because it is easy to think about getting in to a war on the basis of von Clausewitz’s pragmatism, but once the fight is on, the other logic takes over, and not only gives us a reason to see the war through to some conclusion divorced in principle from political practicalities, but also gives us stories about all those positive moral qualities which the participants find in their quest to come through the catastrophe.
The other logic is always dangling out there. It is the same logic that drives me to climb, and others to fly wing suits, race motorcycles, and ski out of bounds. Any useless activity involving uncertainty and inherent danger will have the same enticing, overpowering consistencies between meanings. There is no practical reason to jump out of a functional airplane. There is no material gain in clawing your way up some obscure cliff face. Even the motorcycle racers and sponsored skiers don’t do it for the pay.
This sort of pursuit challenges us to engage, because once we engage, the other logic, which is the logic of survival, determination, and commitment, takes over and cooks off all the other, weaker, practical logics. For the duration, everything is clearly in its place.
Clarity is not a requirement. In our age, nobody really considers going to war on such a vision quest (we gave that up with the end of dueling). You don’t hear the participants in a battle wax nostalgic about the smell, the cacophony, or the sight of dismembered bodies. At best, the practical details of war just serve as props for the exhibition of the other logic. So often the story goes: I didn’t want to be in a war, but since I was, I tried to take something good away from it, and this is what it was – loyalty, determination, commitment.
Those stories are good ones, maybe even necessary ones. Still, they are an attractive nuisance. They don’t get us into war, but they contribute to a kind of permissive state in our collective psyche. Political practicalities appear more convincing. Our own participation in conflict feels easier to justify, sometimes to such a degree that those who should know better (historian Stephen Ambrose) express regret for never having their courage tested in combat.
That’s what it is about climbing. It’s a way in to the crystal sphere of the other logic. It’s also an admission that I want to live as much as possible in the sphere, though it is impractical. I think that that admission is key. It is the bit of insight which separates an attraction to useless, uncertain and inherently dangerous sports from an attraction to war. So maybe there is one generally useful thing to be had from dangerous sports. If we can cultivate in the larger society, an insight into our own motives for pursuing impractical, uncertain and difficult peril, we might be less susceptible to war’s appeal.